Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Fallout (Screenshot), Star Wars: Battlefront (Screenshot), Red Dead Redemption II (Screenshot), Elder Scrolls Online (Screenshot)

The evolution of online gaming threatens extinction for the disconnected life

From left: Fallout (Screenshot), Star Wars: Battlefront (Screenshot), Red Dead Redemption II (Screenshot), Elder Scrolls Online (Screenshot)
Graphic: Allison Corr

There’s something to be said about the sheer amount of effort it takes to get a crap ton of people together just to play a game. Back before online multiplayer games achieved a stranglehold on the industry, you used to have to physically gather your buddies to play through a multiplayer campaign, and wouldn’t leave the room until a clear victor had been determined. Take, for instance, Star WarsBattlefront II (the 2005 version): It was a near-perfect take on multiplayer shooter action in the Star Wars universe, complete with a variety of maps and playable characters that you could use to wreak havoc on your friends. And if you were so inclined, you could even play online if your pals were too busy. Its online features were straightforward, easy to access, and arguably the biggest draw to the series, even as it provided a stellar example of couch-based competition, too.

So you can only imagine that same generation of players being psyched to see this beloved franchise be rebooted 10 years later. But that enthusiasm lasted only until the reboot itself arrived: On paper, EA Games successfully rebooted the Star Wars first-person shooter in 2015, taking the online community for a spin. But there was a darkness lurking at this new game’s core. Before its release, micro-transactions, loot boxes, and expansion packs were mere supplements to online multiplayer games, not necessary requirements to finishing the game, or win a campaign. EA’s Battlefront reboot was a literal game-changer, essentially selling a version of its Battlefield series of online shooters disguised as a revamped Star Wars game. Like Battlefield, the 2015 Battlefront was less a full game and more a template for other (paid) parts to be bolted on to, and it all but forced players to buy add-ons and special expansion packs to “enhance” the overall experience—up to requiring the purchase of season passes in order to access the online multiplayer community at all.

But despite the resistance from nostalgia-fueled Battlefront stans, the game took off. Its smooth controls, modern graphics, and life-like maps afforded it a success akin to that of its sister games over in the Battlefield franchise, and re-launched the series back into relevance—while also codifying its “additions” to the online multiplayer playbook as acceptable, if irritating, practices.

The push toward piecemeal, always-online experiences that Battlefront II came to stand at the apex of had been brewing for years, though, and was initially met with a lot of opposition from the moderate gaming community. But it swiftly became the norm for almost every online game, shooter and RPG alike. Its rise spurred the ongoing joke that purchasing any game with online features was the equivalent of buying a cheeseburger—but with the patty and cheese part of a completely separate transaction. Within these newer online communities, these pay-to-play arrangements became an ever-more-acceptable norm. You pay to upgrade your character, your items, and ultimately you pay for a “premium” experience—despite having often already paid to purchase the game in the first place. Before the “innovations” of the past decade, online console gaming was simple: You’d play the main story mode offline, and could often even play a multiplayer story without connection. While online, meanwhile, you’d join a server to play a completely separate campaign. The line between online and offline was clear, and the traditional gaming experience had no real dependency on its online counterpart.

That changed in 2013, when Rockstar blessed us with Grand Theft Auto V, simultaneously introducing an online community that would define GTA for the next six years. Unlike the beta online server for Red Dead Redemption—the company’s first real step into the multiplayer action-RPG universe—GTA V introduced a separate online story mode (simply dubbed Grand Theft Auto Online) that was a player’s gateway into extending the overall experience indefinitely.

Any and all additions to the GTA universe were now done strictly via its online world. If you weren’t part of that community, you would be stuck playing the main game without any of the sweet limited edition weapons, cars, and side missions. GTA Online also offered its exclusive “play-to-win” feature where a player has the chance to win limited edition content—so long as they have access to Rockstar’s online servers. Its popularity boomed and, in turn, blurred the lines between traditional gaming and online play even more.

Following Rockstar’s success, other franchises fell in line to catch up. The next year, Elder Scrolls Online was announced as Bethesda’s answer to a Skyrim “sequel.” To many fans’ dismay, it still became a popular extension of the franchise’s fantasy universe, and, like GTA, became the only platform for the Elder Scrolls’ world that has seen an update since its inception. Bethesda then did the very same thing to its popular Fallout series. If you were a fan of these universes, then logging on (and paying out) became the only way to see more of them unfold.

But this trend wasn’t exclusive to big, sweeping RPGs. The Tomb Raider reboots attempted to enter the online playing field by gluing extra downloadable content and a separate multiplayer co-op campaign to their base single-player experiences. The co-op was independent from the main storyline; the paid DLCs were not. Though they are considered supplemental, they were also canon; if you didn’t have access to the games’ online aspects, there was no way to get a full picture of Lara’s story, or achieve that prized 100 percent completion.

In the midst of RPGs and other genres moving online, their increasingly common cousins in the world of first-person shooters made leaps and bounds into the online community, too. Games like Bungie’s Destiny made online-only multiplayer campaigns the standard for console gaming—a legacy that can now be seen in games like The Division, Anthem, and other big-budget offerings—and pushed for a more immersive online world where you not only played with multiple people, but were able to build maps, and virtually make your own game in a role-playing style. Online is where the entirety of the game is; its optional nature is a relic of the past.

This rapid evolution of traditionally single-player games into online-only experiences has no end in sight and, in fact, will undoubtedly expand exponentially in the next decade to come, forcing many franchises to move their sights to online multiplayer communities exclusively. At the same time, the focus on paid DLC and season pass expansions promises to make it increasingly difficult for the moderate console gamer to fully enjoy a game without dropping additional coin to get ahead.

Online gaming is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But its move toward being mandatory threatens to isolate and alienate large swathes of consumers; game publishers are shooting themselves in the foot as they cut loose anyone who doesn’t want to exclusively play an MMORPG, or simply can’t afford to sustain the online experience. (It’s worth noting that all three major console companies charge a not-inconsiderable subscription fee for any kind of online content at all.) If the continuation of gameplay for all future big-release games is contingent on the online experience, it could force a lot of moderate gamers to veer away from the big-name series. The online experience is ever-growing, and has opened doors for infinite amounts of creative opportunity. But its exclusivity is turning the most prominent names in the industry into a series of cash grabs, rather than the enthralling experiences they advertise.

Angelica Cataldo is a Chicago-based writer and the Social Media Marketing Manager for The A.V. Club & The Onion.